'Aviator' flies at flawless pace with solid characters

I have seen all but one of the scheduled biopics that are opening for this year's winter Oscar rush, but I have serious doubts that there will be a more engaging and exciting biography this year than "The Aviator," Martin Scorsese's breathless take on Howard Hughes' glory years.

Like Jamie Foxx in "Ray," it features a bravura performance from its lead actor, Leonardo DiCaprio. Unlike "Ray," it is flawlessly paced and never loses steam. And unlike anything in "Alexander," it takes extraordinary real-life events and populates them with deftly characterized historical figures who leap off the screen.

To say there's a lot of ground to cover when considering the life of Hughes would be an understatement. The screenplay by John Logan ("Gladiator") wisely focuses on the years between Hughes' obsession with making Hollywood films and completing the largest plane ever constructed, widely known as the "Spruce Goose."

Obsession is a major theme in "The Aviator."

The film opens in the late 1920s, and Howard's famed penchant for limitless spending is on immediate display as he forks over $3.8 million to complete his silent World War I fighter plane epic, "Hell's Angels." After a big wrap party, Howard re-casts and re-shoots most of it to keep up with the new advent of sound pictures. His strive for perfectionism was often in direct conflict with his bank account.

Hughes' life contains plenty of wild stories for each phase of his career, and Scorsese utilizes some of these examples to hilarious effect. One jaw-dropping scene occurs with Hughes himself in the cockpit of one of the "Hell's Angels" bi-planes, navigating dangerous aerial maneuvers. The pilots are instructed to fly reckless patterns over Los Angeles, and Howard's own mounted movie camera is smashed by a near-crash with another plane. Undeterred, Hughes pulls out a hand-held camera and films the life-threatening madness surrounding him while standing up in the cockpit with both hands off the steering column, oblivious to the danger. Scorsese's effortless technical mastery in designing and cutting together scenes like this elevates "The Aviator" from entertaining to simply amazing.

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Warner Bros. Photo

Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," Martin Scorsese's breathless take on Hughes' glory years.

Another excellent aspect of the film is the economical way the director reveals his main characters to the audience. The famous people that populated Hollywood in the '30s and '40s have left their own mark on our collective consciousness, yet Cate Blanchett dares to show us the sensitive side of an icon like Katharine Hepburn. What begins as merely an impression of the fiercely independent movie star soon emerges as a three-dimensional portrait. Blanchett's Hepburn is a thick-skinned woman whose surprising responsiveness to Hughes only grows when she realizes his withdrawn nature. But rather than stay with any one element of Hughes' life for too long, the movie maintains its fast pace while making every moment a key one in illustrating characters like Hepburn and Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner more vividly.

DiCaprio succeeds fully in presenting Hughes' more endearing side, a remarkable feat considering Howard's maligned reputation. "The Aviator" explores Hughes the dreamer, a man who had a brilliant aviation mind and drive for perfection that frequently led to self-destruction. DiCaprio grows into the role as the film progresses, and we get glimpses of the mental illness that would so cripple the eccentric millionaire in his later years.

Movie

Aviator ****

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Martin Scorsese's breathless biopic of eccentric aviator/ millionaire/ filmmaker Howard Hughes is a fractured tale of the American dream touched by madness. Leonardo DiCaprio gives the performance of his career, and Scorsese's technical mastery in the exciting aerial scenes is rivaled only by his economical storytelling.

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What "The Aviator" has that "Alexander" completely lacks is a point-of-view of its subject. Rather than have a toga-wearing oldster like Anthony Hopkins saunter around some Greek palace philosophizing about the great warrior's life, we get to experience the real-life events in "The Aviator" through Hughes' personal journey. For a man who had trouble expressing himself, this is key, and Scorsese understands it. A funny scene that puts Hughes on the defensive with the upper-crust, liberal Hepburn clan in New England also serves to create great empathy for Howard, and DiCaprio plays it all with a wonderful sense of bewilderment and frustration.

"The Aviator" may seem like a fantasy, but these heights were actually climbed by a real person, a driven genius with a vision that went beyond the limits of his own incredible fortune. Scorsese is one of the world's best directors, and his take on the fractured American dream is one of the best films of the year.

Comments

Rob Gillaspie 9 years, 9 months ago

PS: Pencer is a d-bag and a half. For someone that seems to hate this site so much, he sure spends a lot of time commenting on here...

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kukyfrope 9 years, 9 months ago

Rob, I'm absolutely sure you watch all of the foreign movies in your profile without subtitles, right? Because that would be the cool thing to do, to learn all of those languages and get the REAL meaning of the movie by going to the source, eh?

Aviator was ace, good review.

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Rob Gillaspie 9 years, 9 months ago

"...And, I might add, knowledge about their subject..."

Heh-heh... Hmmm, RI-I-I-I-GHT. Check out any past entries of "Sinema" and come back at me with that comment... I recommend "The Seventies," "Carnival of Souls," or "Freaks," for starters. Then check out the movie list on my profile... How many of those movies have you seen? Or even heard of, for that matter? Thought so. Just because a movie flies above (or below) your intellectual radar doesn't make it unworthy to review. Just because I like to bag on your top 40 favorites doesn't make me a bad writer.

Wanna get into a pissing contest about Scorses? Let's go. The last movie he made that had any lasting effect on me was "After Hours." I'm serious when I say he hasn't made a good movie since the 70's. Want proof? Let's take the last ten years: "Gangs of New York." "Bringing Out The Dead." "Casino." That AWFUL "Cape Fear" remake. Oh, and let's not forget "The Age Of Innocence." These movies put together are less interesting than ONE MINUTE of ANY film by guys like Takashi Miike, Gaspar Noe, Lloyd Kaufman, Nick Zedd, or any of the other hundreds of amazing filmmakers the mainstream reviewers employed by this site ignore.

I'm sorry if you think my opinions make me less legitimate as a writer, but your taste in movies makes you a nonentity in my universe. Shit, you're probably ANTICIPATING this upcoming "War of the Worlds" remake that Speilberg/Cruise have planned for us this year... People like you are destroying all that's good about movies for people like me. So put that in your crackpipe and go fuck yourself with it. Thanks!

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pencer863 9 years, 9 months ago

I think the reviewer has it right. This movie was a pleasure from start to finish. DiCaprio and Scorsese have bounced back from the disappointment of Gangs of New York with a movie that is intelligent, moving, and a lot of fun. Scorsese puts on a clinic in how to shoot, edit, and construct a narrative. DiCaprio puts his heart and soul into the difficult role of Hughes and pulls it off, more than holding his own with a great cast. I particularly liked Cate Blanchett, who interprets Katherine Hepburn with great energy--she's sexy as can be, too. The screenplay doesn't have the usual Scorsese edge (he didn't write it), but you can't ask for everything. "A."

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edie_ 9 years, 9 months ago

Did anyone see this movie without giving it a huge makeover in your head immediately afterwards? John Cusack or Kyle McLaughlin would have been way better than DiCaprio, who looks and acts like a permanent 15 year old. Also the movie starts in 1927 and the fake 3-D effects look ridiculous during the air scenes. Why didn't they use real footage from "Hell's Angels?" What a bust. Who thinks about Howard Hughes without thinking about how he hired lookalikes to swing about town with ladies so that he could give the impression that he was a huge playboy...that was half of the man's mystique and it was totally absent from the biopic.

However Alan Alda as Senator Brewster was perfect...because he really is a self-righteous egomaniac. The public hearing scenes were pretty enjoyable.

The funniest scene of the movie was when Willem DaFoe plays a journalist who refuses to sell Hughes photos of Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy when he was married before printing them. Hughes threatens to out him as a Communist and he agrees to sell them...for share of TWA stock. Apparently he wasn't too much of a Communist.

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pencer863 9 years, 9 months ago

Hello, Rob, interesting comments. I should've known you're the type who can dish out criticism, but not take it.

I suppose I was a bit unfair to lawrence.com because your "writing" is so awful it tends to overshadow the good things. But I'm always interested in a review of a Scorsese film, and Eric Melin and Jon Niccum are solid writers with respect for their readers. You might learn something from them--for example, the difference between an attitude, which is what you have, and a point of view, which is what real writers have.

And, I might add, knowledge about their subject. The folks who assign movie reviews don't choose you, and I can see why. Anyone who calls "Goodfellas" fluff and declares that Scorsese hasn't made a good film since the 1970s needs a brain-douche...maybe that's why you have "d-bags" on your mind. Happy New Year.

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Rob Gillaspie 9 years, 9 months ago

Scorsese hasn't REALLY done a decent movie since the 70's... "Goodfellas" is fun, but pure fluff. Dicaprio--What gives? I buy him as Howard Hughes even less than I buy Farrell as Alexander. Puh-leeeeez.... And what happened to Howard's doubles? His Mormon blood transfusions? His personal war against Communism? This movie is a WASH.

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